SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday took his political campaign to the troubled northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, promising jobs and water supplies to win support in a region at the heart of nearly seven decades of hostility with Pakistan.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is making a bold attempt to win power in a state election under way in Muslim-majority Kashmir and bring it closer to the Indian mainstream, a long-running goal of the right-wing party.
But the BJP’s “Mission Kashmir” has already raised tension, with political rivals and separatists accusing the party of fomenting divisions in the region, which includes Hindu-dominated Jammu and Buddhist Ladakh.
Militants have also stepped up violence coinciding with the election, killing 11 soldiers and policemen in an attack on an Indian army camp on Friday, the worst losses for security forces in six years, and inflaming sentiment across India.
Strong voter turnout in early poll rounds showed people had rejected violence and seek development, Modi told a huge campaign rally in Jammu.
“The power that you have is greater than those holding the AK-47 (assault rifle),” he said. “He can only kill, while you can change the fortunes of a country with your vote.”
Tens of thousands of people applauded Modi as he promised greater development if his party won.
“People want jobs for the youth, water for the farms, medicines for the elders,” he said. “Even those who have strayed and taken up the gun are feeling burdened by it.”
Modi’s harder test was in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, which is at the heart of the 25-year revolt against Indian rule.
Modi promised to help rebuild Srinagar and nearby areas that suffered the worst flooding this year in more than a century. He said he had turned Kutch in his native western state of Gujarat into India’s fastest growing district after a devastating earthquake in 2001.
About 3,000 paramilitary troops and sniffer dogs guarded a cricket stadium where he spoke on a cold, overcast day. Militants have in the past tried to stage attacks during visits by Indian leaders.
The BJP has long sought to end Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution, seeing the region as key to its vision of a strong, united India.
Pakistan calls the election meaningless, urging instead talks to resolve a dispute that has festered ever since independence from Britain in 1947.
Additional reporting and writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Clarence Fernandez